A DARKER WORLD

Eric S. Fomley’s stories have appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Flame Tree Press, The Black Library, and many other places. You can read his other fiction or contact him from his website www.ericfomley.com.

***

I’m nervous as hell. Sixteen and I’ve never been on a first date before.

I sit at a picnic table by Murphy’s food truck on the sunny beach in Honolulu. I have no clue where else to take you but my favorite food stop. We met online and I hope you’re who you say you are. I think everyone worries at least a little that the girl they met online is actually a forty-something-year-old dude who still lives with his mom.

I watch a volleyball team practice in the sand, listening to the soft hip-hop playing on the boombox, when a newscast interrupts the music to warn of severe storms and intermittent power outages.

Shit.

I try to push it from my mind but I hope the weather doesn’t ruin a perfect day with you.

Before long a shadow blocks the sun and you’re standing at my table, hair shimmering in the sunlight, and you’re the most beautiful girl in the world.

“Is this seat taken?” you ask.

“By you, I hope.” As soon as I say it I know you could hear the distinct quiver in my voice.

You grin and sit across from me.

We order Coney dogs and chili cheese fries. I ask you to talk about your family and you ask me to talk about mine.

I pick up a particularly cheesy fry and drop some of the chili cheese on my white shirt. I have a micro panic attack, worried you’ll think I’m a slob. I don’t want to mess up this date.

But you just laugh, an angelic sound, giddy and so full of joy.

My nerves calm, just a little, and we talk well into the night.

When it’s past curfew and you have to hurry home you tell me you had fun, that you want to do it again sometime soon.

I do a happy dance in my car the whole way home.

***

            A few weeks later we go on a night walk along the beach, to the fishing pier at the edge of the shore.

You ask me about my childhood and I tell you the truth.

You listen with such care and attention as I tell you about the abuse, the hardships, and my brokenness. All the things I’d never shared with anyone before, the things I worry might make you think of me as a lesser man.

When I’ve told what there is to tell you give me a warm hug and an electrifying kiss.

“I’m sorry those things happened to you. You didn’t deserve any of it.”

I see the tears in your eyes and I know you mean it. Nothing has ever warmed my heart more.

I ask you about your childhood and you return with vulnerability of your own. The things you share wrench my gut and I no longer feel so alone.

Your eyes captivate me as you talk, shimmering with starlight from the sky above, and I know in these moments that I trust you more than anyone I’ve ever met. That the time we’ll share together will be the greatest of my life.

Internally I pray that the weather holds. That I’ll get to enjoy the rest of this night to its fullest.

***

            Years skip by and I’m nervous again.

We’re in a diner, scanning the menus for dinner. You’re talking about ordering the salmon. The only item listed when I open up my menu is SEVERE THUNDERSTORM WARNING, INTERMITTENT POWER OUTAGES IMMINENT. I don’t want the weather to ruin our date, but I’m so damn nervous I don’t pay it much attention.

The waiter across the room trips and drops his platter; glasses shatter on the tile floor.

You spin to check out the commotion.

I reach into my pocket and drop to one knee.

When you turn back and see me your eyes light up. You gasp when you see the ring.

“Will you marry me?”

I get that same excited smile I got on our first date.

“Yes!” You throw your arms around me and kiss my face over and over.

Excitement jolts through my body, tears stream down my face, and the rest of the night I can’t keep the grin from splitting my face ear to ear.

Deep down I know I’m the luckiest man in the world.

***

            My lip quivers as you walk down the aisle. Your dress flows beautifully behind you as your excited eyes lock with mine. There’s no doubt in my mind that this will be the happiest day of my life.

When you reach the altar you clasp my hands in yours.

The priest clears his throat. “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to warn you of the intermittent power outages across the greater Honolulu area.”

A shiver chills my spine. The warnings are more overt, there isn’t much time. The message is for me, no one else hears, but I don’t want it to ruin the happiest day of my life. My stomach twists into knots and I desperately try to push the threatening weather from my mind, pretending everything will be okay.

Before I know it the priest is asking me the big question and I say “I do.”

“I now pronounce you husband and wife.”

I pull you close and you lean in for our first married kiss. I close my eyes but the kiss never comes.

The sound of howling winds pulls me from that moment into a darkened world.

My chest constricts and I swallow hard to be rid of the lump in my throat. I pull off my VR mask and the living room is black. The power is out. I ignored the machine’s warnings and pushed it too far. I tug on the manual release and the glass door of the machine pops open just enough for me to squeeze through.

Rain pounds against the window of my apartment. Lightning illuminates a dark Honolulu skyline. The storms seem more frequent ever since I bought the machine.

I stumble over the boxes that cover the living room floor and feel my way to the flashlight in the kitchen drawer. I return with the light to my favorite box, the one I’ve actually opened, and sift through the picture frames of us together as I stack my favorites on the couch for later hanging.

I never wanted to move from our home. Sixty years is a long time to live with someone in one place. But too many of the bad memories were in that place. Memories of the end. I wanted to escape from those memories. But still I regret selling our place.

Fuck cancer, I think as I stack the pictures.

Tears well up in my eyes as I look over the timeline of photos that represents our life together. You were everything I thought you would be the day we walked along the pier. I was right to think of myself as the luckiest man in the world. I was truly blessed to have you.

If you could see me now you’d tell me I need to move on. That I had some years of life left and they should be lived to their fullest. You’d scold me the way you would whenever I beat myself up for something I had no control over.

But I can’t move on. Not when so much of my life was spent with you. Not when every day started and ended waking with the simple joy that you were by my side. Not with the emptiness that threatens to crush my soul.

No. I don’t know how to live without you. And I don’t want to.

The lights flicker on a moment later. I hear the cooling fans in the VR machine roar to life as the sliding glass door returns to its place.

I wipe the tears from my eyes and return to the machine, pulling the mask over my face.

All the happiness I have left to me are my memories of you, a lifetime of love and joy. There is no forward movement for us in the future. So I look to the past.

The mask interfaces with the implant in my mind, linking with my memories and nervous system, and giving me the chance to feel it all again. A display in the mask prompts a menu, a list of all the programs extrapolated from our memories together. I start again where I always do, at the beginning—our first date. And hopefully this time I’ll be able to surf through all the highlights.

Again I’m at Murphy’s food truck on the beach in Honolulu. I’m sixteen and waiting with the smell of Coney dogs and chili cheese fries for your smile.

Trying to banish the pain of missing you.

Copyright © 2020 by Eric S. Fomley.